Navigating the Fringe
Part III: Hearing political voices
If you want it to be, then The New York International Fringe Festival can be nothing but silliness, shirtlessness, and sass. Of the 197 productions appearing in this summer’s festival—which runs through August 29—dozens are agreeably frothy, offering tales of Texas beauty queens, camp counselors in love, and farm animals who become the darlings of the art world.
Maybe because they’re so much fun to describe, shows like these get the lion’s share of attention every time the Fringe announces its line-up. The festival is more than breezy fun, however. It also supports political and subversive work, and it often becomes a summer haven for outsider art.
Gay artists have always been part of that identity, and this year, there are forty-six shows with gay themes. Some are cheeky, like Miss Magnolia Beaumont Goes to Provincetown, about a Southern belle trapped in a gay man’s body, and some are earnest, like When Lilacs Last, about two men struggling with their sexual identity and a history of family abuse. All these shows, however, put sexuality in the foreground.
Of course, you could argue that with Proposition 8 dominating the national debate, movies like The Kids Are All Right gaining Oscar buzz, and local politicians like Christine Quinn living easily out of the closet, gay issues and gay life are no longer on the fringes of anything.
But some artists would disagree. “There’s a difference between joining the mainstream and totally assimilating,” says Kathleen Warnock, whose theatre company The Other Side of Silence is in the Fringe with a revival of The Secretaries, a demented office comedy by celebrated downtown troupe The Five Lesbian Brothers. “There’s always a funny gay best friend now, but I’m hoping we can demonstrate that our experience is a little bit richer than that.”
Named after an underground (and groundbreaking) gay theatre company from the 1970s, TOSOS was founded in 2002 with the mission of remounting “lost” gay plays and supporting emerging gay writers. Some of the company’s shows have been hits, including And Sophie Comes Too, a dysfunctional family comedy that transferred Off Broadway after a successful run in last year’s Fringe, and some have been historical touchstones, like a revival of Doric Wilson’s Street Theater, a 1982 play that wittily dissects the Stonewall Riots.
None of TOSOS’ productions, however, have tried to soften their gay content. “Because of the way they explore the world, the plays we end up putting on might never have a mainstream chance, even if they’re totally realistic and have a beginning, middle, and end, ” says Warnock, who oversees the company’s playwrights program.
That’s why an outlet like FringeNYC can be so important. “These stories need to be told and this history needs to be explored,” says Mark Finley, TOSOS’ artistic director. “It’s really easy to forget what gay life was like before [Manhattan's] Chelsea [neighborhood]. It’s frightening to me to talk to people in the generation behind mine who don’t know what Stonewall was, and let’s not forget: We don’t have equal rights yet.”
Along with gay artists, the Fringe also welcomes people with controversial religious and political views. Anna Khaja’s solo show Shaheed prods the circumstances surrounding the 2007 assassination of Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. South Asian comedy team Brownstar uses its show Faster Than the Speed of White to ask barbed questions about race. And Steven Fales, who had a Fringe hit in 2004 with his autobiographical, Mormon-turned-gay-hustler show Confessions of a Mormon Boy, digs deeper into the Mormon faith with his new solo piece Missionary Position. Charting his work as a missionary in Portugal, Fales also discusses highly sensitive issues about Mormon faith and rituals.
“I’m exposing the Mormon temple [marriage] ceremony and violating oaths of secrecy,” Fales says, adding that he felt compelled to do this after hearing the church’s response to the gay marriage debate. “It makes the show feel personally dangerous for me.”
For Fales, the Fringe is the best place to debut such controversial material. “The things I’m discussing are too taboo to just up and launch,” he says. “The Fringe is a great way to break the ice with people. It’s starting to give pieces that stamp of legitimacy that says, ‘If you make it into the Fringe, you deserve to be considered.’”
[Editor’s note: TDF members can purchase tickets to many Fringe productions for just $9 a ticket. Go here to learn more.]
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.